How to Start Homeschooling during COVID-19

Many families who may never have thought of homeschooling are considering homeschooling this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, we advocate for children who are homeschooled. This is more important than ever, given the large number of children who are likely to be homeschooled this fall! Here are a few of the important topics to consider as you start your homeschooling journey. Our course will cover these and more, and those enrolled will benefit from personalized attention from their instructor and peers. 

Can I enroll my child back in school next year? 

Yes, you can! By some estimates, as many as one-third of new homeschooling families re-enroll their children in school after a single year of homeschooling. For children in grades K-8, school districts usually place a re-enrolled child in the grade that is appropriate for their age. You should make sure your child covers your state’s standards for the grade you are homeschooling, but you should not have any problems re-enrolling them. 

Things are a bit different for high school, however. School districts do not always accept credits from time spent homeschooling, and may insist that your student repeat a year. If you are planning to educate a high school student at home this year, we recommend that you look into whether your school district is offering a virtual option; many high schools are. There are also online high school programs that are accredited, although you should check with your school district to see whether they accept credits from a program before signing up. 

If you plan to homeschool through high school and are not planning to re-enroll your high school student in school—in other words, if you plan on homeschooling them through high school graduation—your options are a bit broader. You should be aware that homeschooling through high school takes a high level of dedication and commitment to follow-through, and that your child will not receive a state-accredited diploma (most colleges and employers do still accept homeschool diplomas). These caveats aside, homeschooling through high school absolutely can work—and some students find it to be a rewarding experience. You can learn more about homeschooling through high school here.

What does good homeschooling look like? 

“Homeschooling” is an umbrella term that can describe everything from comprehensive online programs to unschooling, which focuses on delight-directed experiential learning. In between are “curriculum in a box” programs and eclectic homeschooling, in which parents choose different curricular materials for different subjects. Homeschooling is not uniform; instead, it is a diverse educational option that can look like a lot of different things.

Okay. But what does good homeschooling look like? 

  • Learning should be real-time and interactive: The best learning experiences involve face-to-face instruction, whether that be a teacher over video conferencing software or a parent in the home. Interactive engagement with an instructor and/or peers is key to student learning. While children should have some opportunities for independent work, they should not be expected to teach themselves.
  • Learning should be engaging and creative: Avoid programs that require children to sit in front of a computer reading text and answering questions for long hours, or an obsessive focus on worksheets. Instead, focus on learning that is project-based, or that involves creating an end product, such as a term paper, a play, or a science project. 

At CRHE, we believe that different options work for different families and different situations. As a result, we cannot tell you what is best for you. However, we can give you some general advice as you look at your options! Your first consideration should be how much time and energy you have to devote to homeschooling. Having a committed caregiver who is willing and able to spend time working directly with the children is crucial to successful homeschooling. 

— If there is no adult in the home able to be a full time caregiver, we recommend that parents who feel the need to educate their children in the home—perhaps due to being at high risk to COVID-19—consider enrolling in their district’s virtual schooling option. 

— If there is a full-time caregiver in the home who is willing and able to devote themselves to homeschooling, the district’s virtual program may still be a good option, but autonomous homeschooling may also provide a positive learning experience. 

Virtual Programs and Online Learning

Many school districts are offering virtual programs as an option for families this fall. These programs save parents the effort of having to select, purchase, and curate curriculum themselves, and will give parents access to learning partners in their children’s teachers. If you enroll your child in your school district’s virtual program (or in another online program, such as an online charter school), there are several things to keep in mind.

  1. The research on online charter programs suggests that without parent involvement, students often fail to engage. If you enroll your child in a virtual program, your children will still need you to monitor their progress and engage with them in their learning. 
  2. Good virtual programs have synchronous learning elements involving direct, real-time interaction between students and teachers and between students and peers. Good programs are interactive, and use online platforms as a jumping off point for creative, engaged learning. 

While virtual or online programs offered by public school districts are free—after all, you are enrolled in a public school—this is not always the case.

Not Every Program Is Equal

A study of online charter schools in Pennsylvania found that students in these programs showed weaker growth in both reading and math compared with students who remained in public schools. Another study found that for-profit online charter schools enrolled the most students but showed the lowest performance of all online programs (virtual programs run by school districts performed better).

When looking at virtual or online programs, you should ask several questions:

  • Will students interact with instructors and peers in real time?
  • Does the program involve hours spent reading text and filling in answers, or does it use technology as a jumping off point for more active and engaged learning, including assignments away from screens? 

Whatever program you choose, whether online or not, children do not learn most effectively sitting at a desk by themselves reading and regurgitating text. The good news is that virtual programs run by school districts have the best track record among online schooling options, and that many school districts are currently working hard to create interactive, engaging, synchronous virtual schooling options for families. 

Autonomous Homeschooling

Autonomous homeschooling—that is, educating children at home without enrollment in a public program or access to a teacher partner—takes a substantial amount of energy and effort and typically works best when a parent is able to devote themselves to homeschooling full time. If a family has a full time caregiver who is willing to put in the time, however, this can be a rewarding and memorable experience. Autonomous homeschooling allows parents to set their own schedules, innovate, and create positive, interactive learning experiences that bring the whole family together. The best homeschooling is hands-on and interactive. 

If you are considering homeschooling autonomously, you should seriously consider taking our eight-week “Introduction to Home Education” course. The information below is only a small subset of what we cover in our course. Consider the information in this section a small taste of the guidance and direction parents will receive when they enroll in our course. 

What Curriculum Should I Choose?

We have received many queries from parents asking us what curriculum to use. We understand why parents are asking this question! Unfortunately, we have not conducted any reviews of specific curriculum, and as such, cannot make specific recommendations. 

  1. Parents should make sure they cover state learning standards for their child’s grade, particularly if they plan to re-enroll their children later. State learning standards for your child’s grade can typically be found easily online. 
  2. Parents should not feel too bound to any one set of curriculum. Homeschooling offers parents the ability to craft learning experiences that are tailored to their children’s interests, as well as to their own strengths as home educators.

We recommend parents select curricular material by subject rather than purchasing a comprehensive “curriculum in a box.” This is because homeschooling allows parents to tailor curriculum to their child’s goals and interests, and administering a standard set of information defeats that purposepoint. Even a school teacher who must administer the state’s curriculum to a class of twenty students adjusts that curriculum to fit to their class’s interests and their teaching strengths rather than administering it as-is. We also recommend not relying too heavily on any one resource for any given subject, and instead choosing a variety of different materials. The best homeschooling is flexible, innovative, and able to change with a family’s needs. You do not need to replicate a school setting in your home. 

Before selecting curricular material, we encourage parents to articulate their educational philosophy and create learning goals with their child: ask your child what they want to learn, what subjects they like best and least, what parts of school are their most or least favorite, etc. (If your child says they don’t like a given subject, ask them why, and then think about ways you can approach that subject that may turn things around for them. Don’t replicate things that haven’t worked for your child in the past; this is your chance to try something new!) These steps will make you more prepared to look at curricular materials. 

For some subjects—or even all subjects, depending on your situation and interest—you may not actually need a formal curriculum! Many homeschooling families create unit studies for their children. Unit studies offer the opportunity to engage in integrated, subject-specific project-based learning, often using only resources that can be found at the library or online. 

Creating Unit Studies

To explain unit studies, we will use an example. Let’s say that, in your state, third graders study Native American life and culture for social studies. The good news is that if you create a unit study, you do not need to buy a curriculum to cover this material. 

Here is what this might look like: 

First, check out children’s books on Native Americans from the library, using a list of books endorsed by a Native American advocacy organization as a jumping off point. Spend some time reading these books with your child. Some you might assign for your child to read, and write a report on. Read aloud the Kaya American Girl books, which were written in consultation with the Nez Perce tribe and have a reading level designed for children in grades 3-7. 

Next, create a list of free online documentaries about Native Americans and podcasts featuring Native American life and culture, starting once again with recommendations from Native American organizations, and watch these with your child. Find podcasts featuring Native American life and culture to listen to with your child; search YouTube for lessons and videos to watch with your child. In each case, review and curate the resources before sharing them with your child. Spend time discussing these resources with your child. 

Look up maps online showing the changes in tribal borders, as well as maps showing what Native American land you live on today, and help your child make a series of maps showing Native American tribes’ land as it changed over time. Look through free online activities and lesson plans created and curated by Native Americans, and choose a few to do with your child. Look up Native American crafts, using resources on the internet, and help your child make and decorate a Native American drum, or make model cliff dwellings. Research Native American food and help your child pick out a dish to try making.

Learn what tribes originally lived on the land where you live, and research whether there are any local Native American groups or cultural centers. Talk about current issues. Find a documentary about the standoff at Standing Rock, and discuss Native American land rights. Discuss the recent Supreme Court decision that found that much of Oklahoma is still Native American land. Finish by helping your child create a poster illustrating various aspects of Native American life and culture and by having your child make a presentation about what they learned to the rest of your family. 

And there you have it: a semester-long unit study on Native American life and culture. The best part is that your unit study is flexible! If your child develops an interest in a specific Native American tribe or a specific moment in Native American history, you can go deeper. You can also shift direction as you find new resources partway through. 

You can create unit studies on a variety of subjects, following your and your child’s interest. A few more examples may help you visualize the breadth of what unit studies can cover. 

You might do a month-long unit study on bugs that involves reading books from the library about bugs; watching documentaries about bugs; writing a series of short essays on half a dozen different bugs; researching what bugs live in different continents and climates; surveying and drawing the bugs that live in your backyard; calculating how many bugs are in your full backyard using a square foot sample (as well as what percentage of the bugs in your yard are of what kind); and learning about the history of scientific thought and classification of bugs. And just like that, you cover reading, writing, geography, art, math, and science. 

With an older child, you might do a unit study on Gothic literature. This would involve reading books; writing reviews or comparative analyses; watching documentaries or adaptations of various books; researching the history of this genre; writing brief biographies of several Gothic authors; and, finally, writing a term paper making a specific argument about Gothic literature. The final product could also look completely different: your child could write and direct a play based on the book they liked best, or even write the first few chapters of their own work of Gothic literature, following the framework of the genre. If the child is in high school, you might ask your librarian for help finding scholarly writings about Gothic literature; you could have your child write responses, or incorporate analysis of these sources into a term paper. (Click here for more about high school unit studies.)

Unit studies offer you and your children the opportunity to craft learning experiences that are both relevant and interactive. This, and not reading chapters out of a textbook and filling out worksheets, is the sort of learning your child is most likely to remember. 

Things to Remember

Unit studies work best if you first familiarize yourself with what your state’s standards are for your child’s grade. There are often a myriad of areas where you can integrate specific learning standards into the unit studies you craft, but you won’t know this unless you first learn what those learning objectives look like.

For example, let’s return to the 3rd grade Native American life and culture unit study we used as an example in the section above. The Common Core English Language Arts standards include reading standards for 3rd grade that include items like these:

  1. Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
  2. Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
  3. Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

It would be easy to pause every so often, while reading Kaya Saves the Day, and ask questions that help your child practice these skills. For example, you could ask your child why Kaya makes a specific decision, and help your child identify the traits and motivations behind her actions. A number of the Native American children’s books mentioned above retell Native American folklore; after finishing one, you could ask your child to explain what they think is the central message of the story, and help them analyze what the moral might be. 

But remember—you will only know what things to help your child practice and improve if you first familiarize yourself with your state’s learning standards for their grade. It might be a good idea to print some of these documents out and keep them on hand, so that you can reread the standards as a refresher. Depending on your state, you may also be able to buy a physical copy of your state standards for your child’s grade. 

All of this is true for older grades, too. Knowing your state’s standards for your child’s grade for a given subject should help guide you as you work to craft unit studies that engage your child in creative, hands-on learning while also covering learning objectives children at your child’s age and developmental level are expected to meet. 

Two more things to bear in mind!

First, you should start the school year with an overarching plan of study—what you intend to cover in each subject area, and a list of curricular materials and other resources you plan to use for each—in order to make sure that one subject or another does not unintentionally fall by the wayside. This plan should be flexible, and can be revised as needed, but will help ensure that each subject area receives the attention it needs to keep your child learning and on track. Some unit studies may cover more than one subject, and that’s fine! Great, even! These are things you can note in your overall plan. 

Second, unit studies should not be the be-all end-all of your homeschooling. For example, most parents are unprepared to create effective unit studies for math. Because math is something homeschooled children can struggle with (more on this in a moment), you will probably want to purchase a textbook or other specific curricular materials for math. The same will also be true of a number of other subjects for older children. (If you are planning to homeschool a child of high school age, see our page here.)

Additional Considerations

As a reminder, we address all of this and much, much more in our eight-week “Introduction to Home Education” course. Our goal is to give you the tools and confidence you need to homeschool successfully. On that note, here are a few more things to consider! 

Be Child Centered

To the extent possible, put your child in the driver seat. When done best, homeschooling is about empowering children to follow their interests, to explore the world around them, and to engage in learning that is not constrained or limited. Getting to this goal requires buy-in from your child. What does your child want to do? Their education is about them, after all.

Sit down with your child and discuss what the next year will look like. Ask them what they want to study, and help them craft a set of learning goals. Ask them how they like to learn, and involve them setting their daily homeschooling schedule. Your child needs your help and support, but they also need to know that you value their views and opinions. 

Parent First, Teacher Second

When a parent sends a child to school, they get to serve as their child’s cheerleader while their child’s teacher serves as the enforcer. If a child does not do their work, they will be in trouble with their teacher first and foremost. When a parent homeschools they have to be both cheerleader and enforcer. This can create strain on the parent-child relationship. This is something to watch for and head off as much as possible. 

Make sure that you are giving your child positive feedback; that you are listening to your child; and that you are willing and able to adjust what your homeschool looks like when something is not working. Don’t keep trying to make your homeschool process fit a model that you find is not working for you and your child. Make sure your child knows that you are their parent first, and their teacher second (and make sure you remember that too!). 

The Homeschool Math Gap

The most consistent finding in research on homeschooling is the existence of a math gap. Homeschooled students not only underperform in math relative to their performance in reading, they also underperform in math relative to their peers who attend public school. That does not mean your child cannot succeed in math at home! It does, however, mean that you should pay special attention to math as you homeschool.

Some tips include for fostering your child’s math learning include: spend some time brushing up on math yourself, so that you can gain and demonstrate math confidence; never tell your child that math is “hard” or suggest that it is less interesting than other subjects; once your child has moved beyond math you feel confident in, find a math tutor for your child (this can be done via video conference software); when your child is in high school, look into enrolling them in math classes at your local community college or state university. 

Homeschooling Children with Disabilities

If you are homeschooling a child with disabilities, or a child who is on the spectrum, your child’s learning experience may look different in various ways. See if you can talk with one of your child’s special education teachers at the school they attended last year to get some pointers on things you can do to meet your child’s unique learning needs. Reread your child’s previous IEP or other supporting documents.  

We recommend that parents who homeschool a child with disabilities create an IEP for their child. In some cases, school districts offer services for homeschooled children with disabilities; in these cases, school staff will work with you to create an IEP for your child. In other cases, parents may need to craft an IEP privately, working with any service providers their child may have (therapists, etc.) to create learning and educational goals for their child’s year (as well as social and other goals). Having a plan with specific goals means you will have something you can return to again and again over the course of the year. 

Start Out Prepared

If you like what you read in this article and want to know more, please consider enrolling in our “Introduction to Home Education” course. During our eight-week course, you will have two one-on-one meetings with our instructor. You will also receive written feedback on your work from both your instructor and your peers for the duration of the course. 

In the course, parents will situate their philosophy of education within homeschooling theory; investigate their children’s goals and interests; articulate their responsibility to their children within a children’s rights framework; examine legal requirements; network with peers, professionals, and community members; develop curriculum and instructional strategies; identify learning outcomes; anticipate children’s developmental challenges; and create a mechanism for assessing children’s progress. 

The best part? You will finish the course having created a formal Individualized Home Education Plan (IHEP) for each child you will be homeschooling. Parents will receive personalized feedback on each IHEP from both the instructor and from a committee of homeschool graduates, and will be able to use these plans to stay on track all year. 

Enroll Today!

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education empowers homeschooled children by educating the public and advocating for child-centered, evidence-based policy and practices for families and professionals. Our vision is that homeschooled children’s right to a comprehensive and empowering education and a safe and supportive home environment be affirmed and protected by laws, stakeholders, and society as a whole. Sign up for our monthly newsletter here.

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